Week 7 – A look at car culture

Car culture is very much about defining one’s own identity through their vehicle. Practices of modification within their own right exist as key aggregators to these cultures. At any one time, there are thousands of different styles and demographics of associated automotive cultures that are dynamic in their own way, and are the meeting points for like-minded car enthusiasts. The car, in its rawest form, is a cultural icon, a pervasive and accessible possession that is personal in a manner that few other goods are. Vehicles are “a blank canvas that allows [the] owner to paint himself in any fashion desire” (Hill, 2006). Within the banner of Japanese car culture, these sub-genres exist more clearly defined, than any other car culture from across the globe. Cars are mediums for which enthusiasts to engage subjectively with their own identity, and with the wider notions and ideas of political and social society. Cultural automotive styles such as Retro, Show, Race, Stance, and VIP by no means exist only within Japanese car culture, but it is the degree in which these cultures define themselves that sets Japanese car culture apart.

AE71 Corolla
Rebuilding a 1980’s Corolla with parts for drifting was a way of engaging with Japanese car culture, but as well, with my own identity. Driving a modified Corolla as a way of expressing my own automotive ideas.

Bozouku and Shakotan culture are two key examples of peripheral Japanese car subcultures. Similarly to the Rat Rod styles in American, and Bikie culture, which emerged in post-war American society and has since spread globally, members of these cultures exemplify behaviors and demonstrate behaviors that purposefully oppose specific notions of current cultures. For the original members of Bozouku culture, driving around at early hours of the morning revving their engines loudly and creating a ruckus was a way of pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior; a personal form of protest against the societal discourses that were valid at the time. Similarly, Kyusha has its own identity; a culture that revolves around the appreciation, and modification of timeless, vintage Japanese vehicles. Again, these decisions are direct statements about their own personal values and identities. With ‘..goods a visible part of culture’, the vehicle plays a fundamental role, as a personal, non-verbal confirmation of these beliefs. These Vehicles constitute “a pattern of meaning inherited from the recent past.. for the interpretive needs of the present”. (Douglas and Usherwood, pg. 83). Whilst these deep rooted cultural tones and sub tones are yet to emerge to such an extent within the Australia Japanese car culture, ideas of culturally constructed identity are recognizable through other distinct clues – more specifically, the cars enthusiasts choose to drive. Within the Australian automotive context, a rich racing history combined with entire generations of Australian’s brought up on the affordable, Australian family saloon underline a national cultural connection to the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon. Whilst over the last two decades the influx of overseas models and manufacturers, coupled with shifting focuses of the Australian driver have come to absorb a significant portion of the market once dominated by the Australian built saloons, the Commodore and Falcon still encapsulate the principles of Australian automotive. Furthermore, with at the current time Holden offering over ten different performance variants of their Australian built Commodore, these vehicles are indicative of much of the performance-engineering ethos of the Australian automotive landscape. Whilst these Australian saloons are not directly related to this current ethnographic study, they play a fundamental role when analyzing Australian Japanese car culture. In Japan, the basis of Japanese car culture is making use of, in many cases, the ordinary Japanese car. Ignoring cult classics like the Nissan Skyline GTR and the Mitsubishi Evolution, the majority of modified Japanese cars start life at their core as ordinary transportation vehicles. In the same way the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon make up such a part of Australian culture, these cars are intrinsic to the roads of Japanese. Consequently, is becomes second nature for the Japanese enthusiast to modify a car taken from the everyday roads of Japan. Through their practices of modifications, these owners are to set themselves apart – to demonstrate an expression of their identity. By examining the popularity of foreign Japanese car cultures, such as those in Australia and Europe, the true depth of Japanese automotive influence reveals itself. In a country dominated by car traditions so deeply rooted within Australian culture (image below), the dynamic, yet peripheral Japanese car culture occupies a significant part of Australian automotive climate. For the Japanese car enthusiast within Australia, the choice to drive a Japanese vehicle; be it for looks, performance, style or unique factor, goes directly against the cultural trends and underpinnings of dominant culture within Australia. Furthermore, most enthusiasts will agree when stating that these decisions in fact are not decisions made consciously; they are not actively considered – instead, in one way or another, enthusiasts become enthralled by the ethos, the magic of these vehicles.

The original Holden Sandman was a vehicle taylored for the easy going, beach loving Australia. The Holden became a cultural icon for the working class Australian.

This theory can be recognized in countless ways across the culture, from grass-roots drift days held at local tracks, to the casually organized car cruises that occur each and every weekend through national parks and driving roads across the country. Perhaps one of the best examples is the convergence of car enthusiasts each year in October at Eastern Creek Raceway, in South West Sydney. The World Time Attack Challenge invites Japan’s best Time Attack cars to compete against the rest of the world’s best in a battle against each other and the clock. These world renown tuners, not only bring with them race cars at the forefront of their craft (JDM cult hero RE Amemiya completing a pit stop in the Eastern Creek Pitlane), but as well, an intangible explosion of Japanese car culture that has far reaching effects on the Australian automotive climate. Ignoring the hype that surrounds watching these teams operate up close and personally throughout the weekend,  one just has to take a walk through the spectator car park to witness vehicles built and driven by Australia car enthusiasts to appreciate the true effect of Japanese car culture. Whilst these cars may not exhibit the same performance prowess of the cars competing, nor be funded by deep pocketed team sponsors, these cars are parked purposefully as an expression of owners pride, and identity – these physical machines are above all else, a manifestation of culture.(McCracken, p. 65).

Douglas, M, Isherwood, B 1979, The world of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of consumption’, p. 40, 83, Routledge, London

Hill, M 2006, ‘Automotive Culture and History in the United States’, Reseach paper, Olin College, http://digitalcommons.olin.edu/ahs_capstone_2006/17

McCracken, G 1988, Culture and Consumption, Indiana University Press, p. 62-70, Bloomington

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